Send in the Cons

The Surprisingly Subtle History of Swindles and Manipulations in Opera

Friday, July 27, 2012 - 10:00 AM

A few hours north of New York City, a Nubian princess falls in love with an Egyptian soldier, a South African priest searches for his son, and a sorceress bewitches yet another warrior. And a traveling grifter is convincing the town of River City that what they really need is a marching band. This was, of course, back in the days when music education was a thing of value.

The Glimmerglass Festival is nothing if not eclectic this summer.

And yet Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man — a lone wolf between Kurt Weill’s Lost in the Stars, Verdi’s epic Aida and Lully’s Baroque gem Armide is not without its operatic bearings. Musicals about con artists can be named in droves — Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, Catch Me if You Can, The Producers, 110 in the Shade, High Button Shoes.

Perhaps operas, taken at face value, are far less apparent: Gianni Schicchi is your most obvious culprit (the entire plot of the opera is focused on Dante's Florentine cheating a greedy, dysfunctional family out of their inheritance), tied neck-and-neck with Dulcamara, a proto-Harold Hill with his sham elixir, in L’Elisir d’Amore. But peel back the plot trappings and you find that most operas, in fact, hinge on one form of con or another.

Sure, they aren’t all grifters. But “con” (a word that is linked in Merriam Webster to words like “swindle,” “manipulate” and “cajole”) is perhaps the perfect word to apply to Ortud’s deception of Elsa in Lohengrin, done so for the former’s own personal gain at the expense of the latter’s destruction. There’s a similar griftorial air to Emilia in Janacek’s The Makropulos Case (one has to inhabit multiple identities if you plan on living for several centuries) and Bizet's Carmen.

In Madama Butterfly, Pinkerton from the get-go says that he doesn’t intend to stay married to Cio-Cio San, whose death comes as a result of her husband’s own caddish behavior. The climax of Lucia di Lammermoor is predicated upon Lucia’s brother forging a love letter from her beloved to another woman, duping his sister into taking a husband who will benefit their family in the midst of precarious Scottish politics.

A number of villains in opera are responsible for the perpetration of deceit and falsehoods that drive the inherent conflict of a work. Where would Otello (Verdi’s or Rossini’s) be without Iago to bend his ear about a bogus infidelity? What would have happened to Tosca and Cavaradossi had Scarpia not reneged on his promise of a fake execution? But it’s telling that perhaps the two most memorable con artists in opera come from comedies and aren’t necessarily bad guys.

On the morally ambiguous front, we have Hermann in Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (Queen of Spades), who attempts to cheat at a card game and, in doing so, causes three deaths (including his own). Magda in La Rondine creates a whole new life for herself based on an assumed identity that either pans out as bittersweet or tragic depending on what end of Puccini’s opera you go with. Giulietta isn’t billed as a villainess in Les Contes d’Hoffmann, but she certainly plays her own part in the repetitive sabotages of the titular poet’s happiness, tricking the poor sap out of his reflection.

And even our heroes aren’t beyond a lie, whether it’s white or a whale. The boys of La bohème skirt their overdue rent with a little bit of blackmail and sleight of hand. Everyone in Die Fledermaus pretends to be someone they’re not in a party that comes with a hefty hangover. And it's the romantic lead, Count Almaviva, in Il Barbiere di Siviglia who dupes the majority of Rossini's characters: With the aid of Figaro, he assumes two false identities to work his way into Dr. Bartolo's house to see Bartolo's ward (and his beloved) Rosina. But even when Rosina thinks she's in on the ruse, she finds out at the end that the poor student she loved, Lindoro, was in fact a noble count who wanted to make sure she loved him for himself and not for his money.

Rossini's Barbiere recounts the first of the plays from a trilogy by French playwright Pierre Beaumarchais, while Mozart-DaPonte's Le nozze di Figaro, composed 30 years earlier in 1786, is based on the second part of the trilogy. Together these make for some of the more interesting cons in opera. In Barbiere, a marriage between Count Almaviva and Rosina is forged partly on deception. By the time we see the couple again in Marriage, it has been unraveled due to further dishonesty and infidelity. It’s only repaired when Rosina and her maid, Susanna, take matters into their own hands and turn the conning tables on their husbands, switching places to catch the Count in the midst of an extramarital affair. There's added deception when Susanna tricks Figaro into believing that she actually is seducing their boss (“Deh vieni non tardar” in Nozze is perhaps one of the most sumptuous con arias you're like to hear).

Mozart and librettist DaPonte had two other collaborations, both involving cons. In Don Giovanni, the title character is a man who lives for the con. Perhaps more than the act of bedding 1,003 women in Spain alone, it’s the illicit thrill he gets from being able to boast of such a rakish ruse. And the most tragicomic con comes in Così fan tutte, in which two gents bet that they can test their fiancées' fidelity by pretending to go off to war, returning disguised as Albanians and seducing one another's lovers. The wives have had no reason to doubt their husband's fidelity beyond a hint posited by the old philosopher Don Alfonso. But the true cons end up being Don Alfonso and the ladies' maid Despina, who orchestrate the entire emotional heist. Their behavior becomes an apt metaphor for the Enlightenment ideals espoused in all three Mozart-DaPonte operas.

All of these works lay down a road that extends into Wilson’s world. But one of the things that sets operas apart from such musicals as The Music Man (or my personal favorite of the sub-genre, 110 in the Shade) is that the cons are overt. It’s hard to name con artists in opera partly because the act of deception is so subtle, so insidious, that it’s sometimes easy to forget that it’s there.

That is, of course, until you self-immolate and destroy Valhalla.

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